By Joseph Rojo
Growing up, my mom always pushed me to do more and to focus on my academics. She would constantly encourage me to take on harder classes and to really stretch my limits. She was born in Mexico and moved to Los Angeles when she was young. She is the eighth of eleven kids and was the first one to get a degree. I remember throughout the years she would tell me stories of how mis abuelitos never supported her desire to go to school. They would tell her it was a waste of money to get a degree because she was just going to get married and have kids. Yet, she never let that stop her, and she found her way to make it through community college, state college, and then years later, (while raising 2 kids) she would get her MBA. Her dedication to the power of education, in which she defied cultural and gendered normal, made it one of my top priorities in life.
Hola! My name is Joseph Rojo. I’m a medical student. My mom is from Mexico. My dad’s family is also from Mexico, but his family history has been lost over the years. He was born in the U.S. and grew up during the era where Latinx families were essentially forced to assimilate. Like a lot of Latinx families, I have a large extended family. One of the best parts of having a large extended family is the immense gatherings. During these gatherings, we celebrate and continue to practice the traditions that serve as a connection to our Mexican identity.
When I was applying to colleges, I decided I wanted to venture out on my own. During this time in high school, I was a teaching assistant for my adviser. She helped me navigate through the application process. Together we identified two important factors for me to consider: fit and cost. When deciding where to apply, she encouraged me to think about the school’s mission and whether I felt I would be supported. Regarding cost, she pushed me to look at not only tuition, but how much financial aid schools offered, mainly in the form of grants and scholarships.
After the application cycle, I ended up choosing to attend the University of Portland. This was my time, my time to finally venture out from home and see more of the world. It was a hard transition to go from a community that I had known my entire life, to a completely new community. No one had prepared me for that culture shock. I remember being surprised that so many of my college friends had grown up having sleepovers and going away for summer camps. It was really challenging to adapt to the sudden change. I, thankfully, found my people; people who had similar backgrounds and interests as me, and with their support, I made this new place a home.
It was during my time in college that I started to navigate what it meant to be queer. Growing up, my sexuality didn’t feel as important as my other identities, or as important as focusing on schoolwork. Growing up Latinx, I was surrounded by other people who were also Latinx. It was both a personal journey and a community journey. In contrast, navigating what it meant to be queer felt like a personal journey that at times, was very isolating. It was challenging to find a place where I felt like I belonged, because queer social circles can be very judgmental and prejudiced towards racial and ethnic minorities. And on the other side, Latinx spaces can also be prejudiced against those that are sexual and gender minorities. It was during my last two years of college that I found a group of friends who were both ethnic minorities and queer. They taught me and showed me the importance of owning and thriving in all of our identities. It was an incredibly powerful experience to be surrounded and supported by people who not only understood intersectionality, but lived it.
I didn’t know I wanted to go into medicine until after I had graduated college. I started college wanting to help people and that took on many forms throughout the years. I went from wanting to go in psychology, therapy, research, teaching, and then finally medicine. I had graduated from college and was working as a scribe. During these shifts I was drawn to medicine. I was inspired by the ways the people I worked with helped guide those who were suffering. I learned a lot about health and what it means to be a doctor during those years, but the most important lesson I took away was this: going into medicine means entering a world full of suffering and trying to be a point of guidance for people when they are lost.
There have been two decisions during my time in medical school that have brought me incredible sources of joy: joining the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) chapter at my school, and joining the National Leadership Team of the Medical Student Pride Alliance (MSPA). Going through medical school can be incredibly isolating, especially when you are part of an underrepresented group in medicine. Being a part of these groups has created a support network filled with people who can understand and relate to my background. I recently went to the LMSA National Conference and met so many amazing Latinx medical students and made friends with some queer Latinx students. It was incredibly powerful to know that I was not alone.
Being Latinx in medicine is hard, being Latinx and queer in medicine is a challenge and isolating, but having a support team is what will guide and nourish you. One of the best pieces of advice I have received is to find your support network, which include peers, friends, advisors, and mentors. I am where I am today because of my support networks. Their belief in me has guided and strengthened me. Looking back on my journey to medicine, it has been the support of my people that has pushed and led me this far. The journey to medicine can feel hyper-competitive and like you must do it on your own. But in reality, medicine is a team effort and it will take (and trust me you will want) a team to support and comfort you through the highs and lows of the journey.
If after all this I can give you one piece of advice, that is my guiding principle, it would be this: people have been helping us up the ladder, but we have a responsibility to extend our hand to help those climbing the ladder after us.